I don't do protest marches, as a general rule. This decision is based on a mistrust of crowd mechanics and a few personal neuroses. But this, you see, was no ordinary march. This was a protest for people who don't usually protest - who have to be really, really
angry before they will front up with a placard. Oh, the usual suspects were all there today in Cathedral Close, offering copies of Green Left Weekly
and invitations to join the new socialist movement. Flags with the Green logo sprouted like forest regrowth - these are all good people and today couldn't have happened without them, although the official organizers were Unions NSW. But my gaze was drawn irresistibly to a sagging, sickly man, who clearly didn't ventured out often, whose black Labrador accompanied him through the crowd. To a smartly dressed lady with the power haircut, negotiating the press in her motorized wheelchair. To a young man with exquisite hair in a suit and tie, glancing nervously at the burlies carrying flags for the Maritime Union of Australia. To the young woman pushing a pram, with a tiny, tiny flag reading "NSW Nurses Association" stuck into her hair. There was an especially strong contingent of venerable folks: perhaps unsurprisingly given the proposed cuts to the pension, combined with the push to raise the age of retirement. "GREY POWER CAN DEFEAT ABBOT" read their signs, and "DON'T SLUG THE PENSIONERS - THEY HAVE PAID". All standing in the Winter sunlight, between the spires of St Andrews and the equally glorious sandstone of the Sydney Town Hall, bopping along to the Hoodoo Gurus, "The Right Time".
"Can everyone in front the steps please lower their placards!" The greying man in the suit waved. "So the cameras can see the speakers!"
Turned out he was our Master of Ceremonies: Mark Lennon, secretary of Unions NSW. He was accompanied onto the sandstone balcony (that while being part of the Town Hall is not inside
the Town Hall) by a cheery woman in a crimson cardigan. This was Rebecca, who would be signing the speeches for the deaf. And could that woman sign! Her hands underscored every word like a master calligrapher. Her "Bust the Budget" looked positively violent!
Mark introduced us to Aunty Shirley from the Redfern Embassy. We might have been welcome to her country, but some people certainly aren't. "Bust Tony Abbot! We
are the custodians of this land, not the lunatics who have been running the asylum for the last 200 years! Send him back to his country of origin!" The cheers echoed from spire to clock tower.
Mark reciprocated with the acknowledgment of the Cadigal: "the people who did settle this land, no matter what they say!" (For those who have been staying away from the news in order to preserve their sanity, this refers to our Prime Minister's description of Australia as unsettled before 1788, delivered during his keynote address at The Australian-Melbourne Institute conference on 3 July 2014). He thanked the police, the nurses and firemen who were enabling today's protest, which was necessary, he said, because the budget is deliberately unfair. "This is about a change of agenda for this nation," and a message to the new Senators who will be taking their seats for the first time this week.
The next speaker was Kerry Rogers of the NSW Nurse's Association. She stated that the cuts the budget proposes to public health funding, and the attack on our universal health care system, "One of the best in the world!", are unconscionable and unnecessary. The funding crisis mooted by the government is of ideological manufacture: "The only crisis facing Australia is the moral and ethical bankruptcy of this Liberal government!"
Lyn Maciver, of the Fair Go For Pensioners coalition, repeated this point, with reference to the Nobel-prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and his comments that the government's plan to deregulate universities is "a crime" and the move for co-payments for medical services "absurd" (in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald
, 3 July 2014). But the matter of her speech was more personal. She told of how she became a pensioner in 2007, when her husband suffered a severe stroke at the age of 54. His care demanded that she leave paid employment. She never anticipated this. And such reversals, she emphasized, can happen to anyone at any time. She was here speaking, she said, for those who cannot speak for themselves. "Enough is enough, Tony." It was at this point I realized that the frantic whirring I kept hearing was a very small, white-haired lady standing behind me, and swinging a football rattle for all she was worth.
Before introducing the next speaker, Mark announced: "We have filled Town Hall Square. Congratulations!" "BUST THE BUDGET! BUST THE BUDGET!"
Jane Tyrrell was previously president of the National Union of Students, and suggested there was an upside to all this. "This budget has breathed fire into the hearts of students across Australia!" The chanting surged and only Rebecca's eloquent gestures managed to reduce the volume to the point where Jane could continue. Education is not for profit and nor should it ever be. Certain people now in power, who benefited from free tertiary education during the 1980s, should remember this. Cutting funding, increasing student debt and the deregulation of universities will lead us inexorably to a two-tiered American-style education system, that entrenches disadvantage. "Students see this budget, and have one important thing to say. YOU SHALL NOT PASS!"
Next, Maree O'Halloran of the Welfare Rights Legal Centre mounted the balcony, noting that the Cadigal "were still fighting, and never ceded their land." She also referenced Stiglitz, and her description of why people use their service broadened Lyn's tale to the young people who have never held a job, those made redundant in their middle-age, and the chronically ill. These people, she said, want and need jobs and training, but this government is planning for destitution. Instead of implementing a jobs policy, the budget sets aside $240 million for "emergency relief" - which she translated as food parcels. The government know what the result of their policies will be.
Finally, Mark introduced the secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, Dave Oliver, who picked up on Jane's point. "This budget is about the Americanisation of our society. We are out in here in the streets, defending the Australian way of life."
And in the streets we were. Marching right down the middle of George Street, the traffic held back by obliging police. In the canyon formed by the Queen Victoria Building and mirrored skyscrapers on the other, the chants rolled back and forth along the massive line - from the top, already around the corner in Market Street, to the bottom still massed in Cathedral Close. Disparate voices picked them up and passed them along like waves. HEY! HEY! HO! HO! TONY ABBOT HAS TO GO! "NO CUTS, NO FEES, NO CORPORATE UNIVERSITIES!" "HANDS OFF MEDICARE!" But always returning to BUST THE BUDGET! BUST THE BUDGET! None of the Sunday shoppers or tourists lining the sidewalks could have been in any doubt of the reason we were marching. Some looked uneasy, some looked away. Some simply began filming us. We turned up Castlereagh, and then back down Park to complete the circuit. The rally was over, but as Mark reminded us, it was just the beginning. Whatever the Senate do or fail to do, the work will continue.
In the Queen Victoria Building, orange placards lined the wrought iron balconies of the second level, as those who had borne them ordered tea, or queued at the rest room. White-haired ladies chatted happily with exquisitely groomed young men. Sleek young women with Gucchi bags comforted grumpy children, while inspecting the leaflets they had picked up. As said, these aren't the kind of people who usually protest. But they're doing so now.